So, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s life is as a sham. But nevermind that. I’m not interested in what the lurid and bizarre details of Falwell’s double life say about him. Sin happens. We pray repentance follows.
What I am interested in is what this scandal reveals about us – i.e. the Christians who have spent the past four years reshaping ourselves to adapt to our weird allegiance with the politician who Falwell famously endorsed in a shock announcement in January 2016, helping Trump clinch the support of the religious right, and win the GOP primary.
Of all the people who were shocked at the time, probably no one was more shocked than Ted Cruz. Why? Because Falwell had, by all accounts, promised to endorse Cruz when the time came. And he hadn’t given the Cruz camp any hint that he was reconsidering, or the courtesy of a heads-up when he changed his mind.
So, what happened? The explanations given by Falwell at the time were straight-forward: He had talked to some well-placed people-in-the-know, gotten a new perspective, and was now convinced that Trump was the best candidate. And hey, why not? That’s politics, baby!
As of this week, however, we know that things were much more complicated – and perverse – than that.
For years now, weird and wild rumours have swirled around about the Falwells: rumours about sexual trysts with a hotel pool boy, and racy photos featuring Falwell’s wife, and blackmail, and large, questionable business loans to said pool boy, and involvement in a seedy LGBT hostel business. Oh, and also an effort by Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to obtain and destroy the aforementioned photos, allegedly in exchange for Falwell’s endorsement of Trump.
Up til now, conservatives have managed to dismiss most of this as the scandal-mongering of a corrupt, liberal mainstream media, repeating unsubstantiated rumours just to taint the reputation of one of Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporters. Deep state stuff.
Now, however, we know that most of it’s true.
Earlier this week, Falwell published a statement in the Washington Examiner admitting that his wife had an affair with a certain Giancarlo Granda (who worked, yes, as a hotel pool boy), and claiming that Granda has been subjecting the family to blackmail.
As it turns out, Falwell’s self-serving statement was timed to get ahead of an article, published hours later by Reuters, giving Granda’s side of the story. If the Reuters report is to be believed (and Reuters claims to have reviewed evidence verifying many of the more sordid allegations) Falwell’s version of events is less than complete, and far from candid. Indeed, it appears that, rather than being involved in a brief relationship with Granda (as Falwell’s statement claimed), Becki Falwell (Falwell’s wife) engaged in serial infidelity with Granda over the space of several years, that Jerry was fully aware of the relationship, and that he may have even watched the illicit sexual encounters. The Falwells, it seems, were swingers.
On the one hand, it’s all so gross, and puerile, and pointless. But on the other, it’s arguably cataclysmic in terms of how we interpret the events of the past few years.
Let’s take a quick journey back to January 2016, shall we? At the time, we were in the middle of a heated primary campaign. The thing was a toss-up. On the one hand, the field was thick with qualified candidates. On the other, nobody stood out as substantially different from the vanilla candidates the GOP had put up (unsuccessfully) in the previous two elections.
Except, of course, for Donald Trump.
Remember how conservative Christians talked about Trump at the time? I do. Vividly. Most of the conservatives I knew couldn’t stand him. That he was boorish, vulgar, and unprincipled, a reality-TV star down to his bones, with the substance of a cyanide-laced cream puff, was treated as a truism.
But also (one had to admit) he was…different. A fighter. A winner (those bankruptcies aside). A slugger in the debates (even if not always exactly coherent).
But still, emphatically not our man. We had Cruz. And Rubio. The former a little weird, perhaps. The latter a little safe. Neither entirely reliable; but both basically principled, and decent, and competent.
Then, days before the Iowa caucus, Jerry Falwell, Jr. (the Jerry Falwell Jr.!) endorsed Trump. And suddenly Trump had the moral authority of the Falwell family (the Falwell family) and Liberty University (the Liberty University) behind him.
That was a game changer.
Other evangelical leaders sat up and took notice. After all, there was simply no way – we all thought – someone in Falwell’s position, and of Falwell’s stature, would endorse Trump on a whim. Clearly, Falwell had been meeting with his well-placed political friends, and knew something we didn’t. And he had decided to take a risk.
Perhaps we needed to take a risk too, and do something different. Shake things up.
Now, however, we know what we didn’t know then: That those who took their cue from Falwell (and plenty did) and mollified their objections to Trump with appeals to Falwell’s precedent, were not (as they thought) following the prayerful and well-informed discernment of a spiritual leader with privileged access to pertinent information. At best, they were following the addled, self-serving calculations of a man living neck-deep in sin; at worst, they were caving to the blackmail of a fornicating pool boy.
The hidden costs
I know what Trump enthusiasts will say: It…doesn’t…matter. Maybe Falwell did endorse Trump under duress, or from tainted motives. So what? What matters is that Trump has delivered: look at his excellent judicial nominations; his bevy of religious and socially conservative advisors and officials; his historic speech to the March for Life…his pro-life executive orders, his defiance of the globalist elites, his limitless capacity for survival in the face the attacks of the deep state.
In light of all of this (and much more), who cares about Jerry Falwell now, when we have four years of winning as proof of the wisdom of our choice?
Fair enough. I get it. I’m not a Never Trumper. I’m not interested in making a Never Trump case. I am keenly aware – probably more than most – of what Christians and conservatives have gained from Trump. And I’m keenly aware of the dangers a radicalized Democratic party poses to our culture and freedoms.
On the other hand, I worry that we haven’t yet grappled sufficiently with the question of what we have lost in our alliance with Trump. In my dark moments, I sometimes worry that it is our minds. In my darker moments, I fear that it could be our soul.
Every day over the past four years, I’ve seen and heard things that have troubled me, things that did not jibe with anything that I’d been taught to value as a conservative, a Christian and a thinker – things that, if a Democrat president had done or said the same, I know with certitude would have provoked ferocious responses from the right.
I noted, for instance, that Trump had a distressingly tenuous relationship with truth; that he was often unaccountably cruel not only to his sworn enemies, but to anybody who questioned or criticized him; that he had an extraordinary inability to earn and to maintain trust and loyalty among his advisors, friends and family; that his White House was a dumpster fire, a sordid day-time soap opera, with a revolving door of advisors and officials, welcomed effusively one minute, and thrown under the bus (or in prison) the next, with a final kick on Twitter for good effect; that he seemed to be surrounded and supported by a cabal of common con-men, grifters and snake-oil salesmen; that he spent a bizarre amount of time in frivolous feuds on Twitter, hurling schoolyard insults, or obsessing over cable news; that his unscripted speeches and interviews were frequently garbled and nonsensical; that he often displayed a failure to grasp the details or nuances of complex situations.
None of this necessarily amounted to a deal breaker, of course, especially in light of the ways Trump was delivering on key promises to social conservatives, and especially given the alternative. Clearly, however, The Most Important Thing was to keep our wits about us, shrewdly distinguishing the pros from the cons, weighing them in the balance, and being careful…very, very careful about how we went about mixing our brand with that of America’s #1 Salesman.
Instead, however, I increasingly heard conservative and Christian figures either flat-out deny the troubling things that I saw, or spin them as net positives rather than negatives. In many cases, it’s as if the troubling things I saw had been passed through Calvin’s transmogrifier, with incompetence re-emerging as incomprehensible genius, self-inflicted political wounds as proof of the persecution of the deep state*, impulsive social media posting as a form of 8-D political chess, and ego-driven brawling as righteous crusading.
(Falwell himself gave a masterclass this week in this black art. Never mind the mess he’s made, it turns out it’s all – naturally – nothing more than a sinister plot to get at Trump. “I was very successful in bringing the evangelicals to Trump in 2016,” he boasted to the Washington Post, “There’s no question that I’m being targeted because it’s an election year.” As another side note, it’s certainly interesting that the primary reason Falwell originally gave for endorsing Trump – i.e. that four more years of Obama-like spending would see the U.S. debt level balloon from $18 trillion to the “tipping point” of $24 trillion – has aged about as poorly as his reputation, with U.S. debt currently topping $26.6 trillion.)
This has all been so disorientating that, up until quite recently, I simply assumed that I was missing something; that I was too inexperienced to see what often-older and more experienced activists and political operatives saw; or too idealistic or scrupulous, lacking sufficient stomach for the rough-and-tumble of politics; or that I just didn’t grasp the complexities of our side’s political calculus.
Maybe all of that’s true, I honestly don’t know. But through it all I maintained the belief that the attitude of most conservative Christians was basically what it was in Nov. of 2016: i.e. we were still more-or-less holding our noses, with a nudge and wink in one another’s direction: sly as foxes, fully aware of certain garments the emperor lacked, but choosing to stay mum, seeing in Trump’s devil-may-care politicking a precious opportunity to advance our cause and keep the progressive barbarians at bay.
Even if I had my doubts about the wisdom of the strategy, at least it’s one I could understand.
The Falwell Effect
I have come to fear that I have been terribly naive.
At some point over the past four years, it seems, much of the religious right went from tolerating and using Trump, to celebrating Trump, to actively refashioning ourselves in his image. Trump, we’ve discovered to our surprise, is precisely what the religious right needed all along, precisely what the religious right needs to become. Trump’s bull-in-the-china-shop routine, his heedlessness of social pieties, his down-and-dirty real politick – these are not liabilities, but the ways he keeps winning. And they’re how we can win, too. We need to stop lamenting the untimely demise of the age of decency (murdered by the left), get in on the game, and give the left back as good as they’ve given us.
But it’s more than that, too. It turns out that not only has Trump saved us from political ruin, he’s also shown us the way back to the Promised Land. He’s brought God back to Washington. And he’s bringing the country back to God. To our great joy, he is – it turns out – our spiritual and much as our political salvation.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it.
Here’s another: Trump is a spiritual grifter, whose primary spiritual effect has not been the elevation of politics to a higher spiritual plane, but rather the reduction – the degradation – of the spiritual to the political. Indeed, the most consistent effect of Trump’s spirituality – whatever exactly it might be – seems to be not to direct our hearts towards heavenly things, but rather to suggest that heavenly things are somehow pointing towards Trump.
If nothing else, that should ring our spiritual alarm bells. In fact, nothing has convinced me more of the existential risks of an unreflective Trumpism than the sight of conservatives modifying or dialing down their political, intellectual and (most troubling of all) moral and spiritual principles simply in order to accommodate Trump.
Call it The Falwell Effect.
We used, for instance, to talk a great deal about the central importance of character, virtue, and wisdom in our politicians. In fact, it’s pretty much all I ever heard growing up in pro-life and conservative circles. This sobering 2016 poll, however, revealed an astonishingly rapid reversal in evangelical attitudes about the importance of personal sin in evaluating a politician’s fitness for office. The poll should disturb us, if only because of the speed of the shift. Conservative beliefs about the importance of character were the fruit of long reflection by generations of thinkers and spiritual leaders. And yet we abandoned them – practically overnight – largely to smooth the way for a man who might well be our political leader for as little as four years – a mere blip in our lives, and an even tinier blip in history.
I was dismayed recently to see two conservative Catholic media personalities give fawning interviews to Roger Stone, featuring nothing but softball questions, framing him as hero and victim and – credulously – newly minted Catholic revert. Roger Stone! – the man whose previous claim to fame was posting “wanted” ads with his wife looking for swinger partners; who describes himself mischievously as a “try-sexual” – i.e. he’s tried everything; and who happily pushed the GOP to get in bed with the LGBT movement. Whose political methodology is nakedly Machiavellian – i.e. as he put it in the book Stone’s Rules, “attack, attack, attack, never defend.” And, infamously: “Admit Nothing; Deny Everything; Launch Counterattack.”
Four years ago, all the religious conservatives I knew would have viewed Stone as embodying everything that was wrong with the GOP – an unprincipled grifter, far more interested in seizing and using political power as such, than in using political power to advance the common good. Now, however, it seems he’s the paragon of everything we’ve come to believe in: winning (albeit, for “the cause”) using whatever means necessary.
I hate to pick on any one individual, especially one whom I admire and respect as much as Eric Metaxas. But, here’s Metaxas in 2015:
Donald Trump’s despicable comments about Megyn Kelly are God’s mercy toward the U.S. We’ve been allowed to see the madness of Saul in time to reject him. If anything has ever illustrated our debased view of manhood…Donald Trump is it. He is not gentlemanly or chivalrous or heroic. He is a win-at-all-costs Saul who would mesmerize us for a time and lift our hopes, only to destroy us in the end. His viciously nasty comments toward Rosie O’Donnell were not what a gentleman says about a woman, no matter who she is or what awful things SHE has said. A gentleman would never have stooped to that level. Would George Washington or Abraham Lincoln speak about a woman that way? We’ve fallen very far that we would tolerate this behavior. (emphasis added)
And here’s Metaxas in 2020:
Trump is … like a folk hero … he’s larger than life, like a cartoon figure … I found myself having an affection for him in the way that you would for an uncle that, he’s not politically correct, there’s a lot of stuff about him that wouldn’t work among your friends. But you love him. And you know he’s a good man, and you know he loves his country, and he would fight and die for his country. And if you’re in trouble, you want him around. He’s good.
I’m not saying the 2015 comments were the final word, or that there’s no truth in the 2020 comments. There is. But clearly, we’re a long way from 2015. And I think that, right now, if we’re to rebalance the scales toward sanity, we need a whole lot more 2015, and a whole lot less 2020.
Trust the truth
In the past few months, it’s become increasingly clear to me that parts of the Christian right are swimming in the heady, but toxic fumes of an unmoored real politick. And to me, Falwell’s fall has been the wakeup call, the canary in the coal mine, the alarm bell warning us that it’s time to climb out of the dark, cramped tunnels through which we’re groping, and get our feet back on solid earth, in the sunshine and fresh air, and to purge the poison from of our system.
Above all we need to remind ourselves of, and get back in touch with our principles. Our ideals. The transcendent truths and standards we believe in. The things that were true before Trump, and that will be true long after Trump. The truths that are true without reference to whether they help or harm our position in the transient world of politics.
And if we find that, standing in the light of any of these truths, Trump appears less than pristine, we need to frankly acknowledge this fact – not because we can or should expect or demand perfection from our politicians, but simply because without firm principles we are vulnerable to the allure of a self-defeating pragmatism, and the promises of every huckster who claims to represent our interests.
That is, we need to ditch every hint of Trump apologism – the habit of assuming that something is good just because Trump did it, or that if something isn’t good, that Trump can’t have done it (or if he did do it, that we shouldn’t talk about it). Instead, we must look at each individual thing Trump does, and then ask whether it’s good. For a while, Ben Shapiro showed us how it’s done with his Good Trump/Bad Trump schtick. If Trump is good, say so; if Trump is bad, say so.
Certainly, don’t eschew the latter merely on account of the boogeyman of political catastrophism, which terrifies us into obsequious loyalty to our guy for fear that, should we publicly criticize him, however mildly, he will lose, and our enemies regain the reins of power. Such pragmatism might appear to lead to winning in the short term. But in reality all it really does is ensure we come to the bargaining table empty-handed, and primes our minds to think every crumb tossed our a way a feast.
Remember when Falwell was asked by the Washington Post, in 2019, whether there was “anything” Trump could do “that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders”? He replied with just one word: “No.” That should have been the moment Liberty’s board hauled him off their premises by the ear, as a man who had completely lost the plot. For his part, Trump long ago internalized the lesson, boasting in 2016 that his supporters are so “loyal” that he could shoot somebody in the middle of 5th avenue, “And I wouldn’t lose any voters! It’s incredible!”
Clearly, however, that that’s not loyalty. That’s madness. And political suicide to boot.
Here’s a useful trick: When evaluating something Trump has said or done, ask yourself whether if a Democrat president did or said the exact same thing, you would think it good. If not, don’t make excuses for it, or sweep it under the carpet, or go mucking about with your intellectual and moral software just in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance.
In sum: trust the truth.
I’ll end on a conciliatory note: I agree that in many ways Trump has proved a far greater ally for the pro-life cause and conservativism than I dared hope for or believe in 2016. He’s proved himself willing – more willing in some cases than politicians with firmer convictions – to take political risks and to fight in order to deliver on his promises. We have reason to be grateful to him.
On the other hand, I worry that we occasionally exaggerate some of those accomplishments, blinded by the brightness of the here-and-now. More importantly, I worry that we have completely failed to examine or consider the hidden, long-term costs, and to take steps to protect ourselves from them. The most insidious of these is the way that our alliance with Trump subtly pressures us to massage, modify, and occasionally abandon our former standards and convictions to the detriment of our accumulated moral capital: the moral capital that we will be desperately in need of when – and not if – a radicalized Democratic party eventually assumes power.
I do not advocate ingratitude, or the abandonment of our alliance with Trump. But I do urge a new attitude towards that alliance. Or rather, the recovery of an old attitude – the one I thought we had all agreed on way back in Nov. 2016: that of a shrewd transactionalism, i.e. a willingness to work with Trump in passing good policies, but always with eyes wide open, fully aware that Trump sometimes stands to gain far more than we from the transaction; aware, too, that we run the risk of losing a great deal more than he, should the deal go sour.
* I do not deny that there are people within U.S. government entities that are seeking to harm Trump using less-than-above-board, and occasionally downright nefarious and illegal means. I do believe, however, that the machinations of the “deep state” have become an explanatory swiss army knife that has been blunted by overuse.